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NASA Shies Away From Seemingly Superior Rocket Plan

June 22, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. _ It’s the rocket NASA won’t talk about _ but proponents insist it could change everything. If built, they say, it could get America back on the moon faster and cheaper than anything NASA is designing _ and save thousands of jobs in Florida.

It’s called Direct 2.0, or the Jupiter 120 rocket. The simplicity of its design, and the possibility that it could shave years off a projected five-year gap in U.S. human spaceflight once the shuttle retires in 2010, is gaining Direct a growing following among engineers and space enthusiasts _ including NASA workers who are secretly helping the project on their own time. Adherents say it could fly by 2013 for less than the projected cost of NASA’s Ares rocket.

Indeed, an unfinished internal NASA study _ shut down and disowned by the agency last fall _ showed Direct 2.0 would outperform Ares, which the agency is designing for its Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon. The initial results showed Direct 2.0 was superior in cost, overall performance and work-force retention _ a big issue for Florida.

A presentation last month in Washington by Stephen Metschan, CEO of TeamVision Corp., a software-design company promoting the Direct concept, excited Brevard County space advocates seeking to mitigate the layoffs of thousands of workers at Kennedy Space Center when the shuttles are mothballed.

“It certainly makes sense,” said Edward Ellegood, a space-policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “If it can deliver what it claims, I think it’s worth a closer look.”

But when Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., holds a hearing Monday in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to discuss future jobs and spaceflight prospects at KSC after the shuttle retires, the proposal is likely to be conspicuous by its absence.

The problem? NASA hates the idea, largely because the agency and its administrator, Mike Griffin, are totally committed to the Ares rocket despite a host of design troubles.

In April, government auditors questioned whether the Ares rocket would ever work.

NASA is working to stifle debate about alternatives such as Direct, pooh-poohing supporters’ claims and warning Congress that any move to abandon Ares risks grounding the U.S. space program for decades.

“At some point, the studying has to stop, and the work has to commence,” Griffin has said.

He is backed by legendary NASA figures such as Gene Krantz, the Apollo-era flight director best known for his role in saving the crew of Apollo 13. When asked last month whether he thought NASA should look at Direct, he told a Senate panel: “Stay the course.”

But with a new administration taking office next year, NASA projects are almost certain to face new scrutiny, and the unfinished NASA study indicates Ares might be vulnerable.

NASA denies there ever was such a study. But e-mails obtained by the Orlando Sentinel and interviews with NASA employees and contractors indicate that a study was initiated last fall to compare Ares and alternatives in case a backup plan was needed.

Although developed independently from NASA during the past few years, the Direct rocket actually began life as NASA’s own work.

The basic concept was first proposed in 1986 by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. It was promoted as a logical alternative for launching unmanned cargo and even potentially a restarted Apollo spacecraft program.

But there were no funds available to build it, so the idea was shelved.

In 1991, it was revived by NASA and the Defense Department as an alternative for launching military satellites. But because satellites are comparatively light, this design used less-expensive engines with far less thrust than the original concept.

It was this weaker configuration that led NASA to dismiss a Direct-like design in 2005 when it was looking for a shuttle replacement.

Since then, teams of rocket enthusiasts and engineers, including several working for NASA, have picked up the project in their spare time and designed more powerful engines that could be attached to the bottom of the external fuel tank.

Said an engineer for a NASA contractor who is working on the Constellation program at the Kennedy Space Center and on the Direct design on his own time at night: “A lot of us turned to this (Direct) because we realized Ares is not going to fly. . . . Based on the ground rules placed upon NASA by Congress _ that as much of the shuttle system as possible needed to be used _ Direct is the best solution.” He said he feared for his job if his name was used.

Metschan said his company’s software _ frequently used by NASA to evaluate rocket systems _ showed Direct is superior to Ares and is being used to continue to refine the design.

He said people were willing to lend their expertise to the project for free because they believe in it and because they see it as a way to continue utilizing shuttle hardware and the KSC work force.

“We didn’t want to lose our space infrastructure or the work force that serves it,” Metschan said. “(Direct) is quicker, cheaper and safer. It’s everything that Ares is supposed to be.”

Direct supporters will not address the Senate panel Monday in Port Canaveral. A spokesman for Nelson’s office said he wasn’t sure whether the subject would come up during the hearing.

But Metschan says his supporters will attend a rally before the hearing; organizers are hoping to attract 6,400 people, to dramatize the number of workers who could be laid off. Direct supporters will hand out pamphlets seeking more converts and the public scrutiny he thinks the project deserves.

“All we want is a chance to prove that Direct is what we say it is,” he said.

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(Mark K. Matthews of the Orlando Sentinel’s Washington bureau contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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